Persuasive Technology

Most of them actually think they’re operating in the public interest.  Interactive psychological persuasion, as practiced according to the Fogg Behavioral Model, won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, as they put it.  Trouble is, what one wants to do isn’t always in one’s own ultimate best interest.   For a particularly sobering case in point, consider the Las Vegas gambling system, as depicted by Natasha Dow Schull in her 2012 book Addiction by Design.    The most hard-core gamblers won’t even move away from the electronic one-armed bandit to go to the bathroom.  I don’t mean that they hold it until they leave and go home to do their business.  No, they just go on the spot where they’re sitting in front of the console, into a cup, or worse.  And it’s not about winning money.  They play to get into “the zone”, a psychological state of  personality effacement.  From the book:  “As machine gamblers tell it, neither control, nor chance, nor the tension between the two drives their play; their aim is not to win but to continue.”  We are dealing, in other words, with a system “in which time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process”, as Schull puts it.  Schull avers that this is the realm of the psychoanalytic “death drive”.  I don’t believe I need point out the parallells between Las Vegas gambling ansd the protocols of the internet, with persuasive design leading the way for both enterprises.  It’s all there at the website of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford for those of you with an interest in the nuts and bolts.  BJ Fogg, originator of the Fogg Behavioral Model  (FBM), also has several websites devoted to the cause of personality modification.  Motivation–Ability–Trigger.  This is the simple protocol Fogg employs.  It’s all about ease.  And please keep in mind, It’s easier to effect a socially accepted behavior than one that is less socially accepted, as the Fogg model points out.  Why go against the current?  You’re just wasting your effort!  The Gospel of Efficiency dictates that one should not expend counterproductive effort, no matter what.  Your fitness tracker will alert you when you have crossed the line.  Feel like doing something, thinking something, that less than 30% of the public accepts?  Better think twice!  Or better yet, download the app that stops the thought from appearing in the first place!  In such a way will universal harmony be spread all across the earth.  Stanford Persuasive Technology Labs have a goal of establishing world peace in 30 years.  We are engineering on a grand scale now.

Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre

Have you heard the news?  There’s not good rockin’ tonight!  The Guardian April 11–the US House hearings.  Guardian reports:  “The [Cambridge Analytica] data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by the Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan. The Democratic congressman Eliot Engel of New York asked if Facebook planned to sue Kogan, Cambridge University or Cambridge Analytica.   Zuckerberg said legal action was being considered and added: ‘What we found now is that there’s a whole programme associated with Cambridge University where … there were a number of other researchers building similar apps. We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.’

Zuckerberg was presumably referring to Cambridge University’s psychometrics centre, which media reports have suggested worked with Cambridge Analytica on ways to predict human behaviour, although the university denies this.”

And, Mr. Zuckerberg of course has known about this for some time, contrary to his implications in the above quote, as was discussed at the Hearings today.

The Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  From the Cambridge University Psychometrics Center website:

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Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

That section near the beginning where he talks about how people become attached to what he calls “communities of opinion.”  “This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true.  Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.  Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.” And so it becomes apparent that conformity was a serious problem in the American character even in 1841, a supposition confirmed by de Toqueville.  Somehow the self-trust that inheres from our earliest days undergoes a serious erosion.  When society with its power of indignation against the contrary individual becomes aroused, when the unintelligible brute force of society is made to growl and mow, this force first stands defensive, and then almost always subsequently collapses.  And so, if this state of affairs disturbs us,  we are led back to the primeval source of our early penchant for self-reliance to attempt to repair its eviscerated foundations.  “The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.  We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition whilst all later teachings are tuitions.  In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.”

What an indictment of the present Weltanchauung.  At about this same time, that is, 1841, Comte’s Positivism was taking its position at the forefront of the Weltanschauung of its time. (What a fertile time this was!  All the psychomachias we are dealing with today found a crossroads here!)

The place where analysis cannot go.  That place that Comte disparaged to the point of utter derision.  But we return instead again to “Self-reliance”:  “We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause.”  This is the position of Positivism in a nutshell.  Subjectivity is untrustworthy.   Therefore, let us abandon it entirely as anything legitimate.  Everything must be looked at from the outside.  Only the dispassionate observer is the true discoverer of truth.  Our whole system of science is founded upon this principle.  But Husserl has established that the egologic is the only legitimate starting-point.  We do not have the luxury of the God’s-eye point of view.  Or we didn’t, until now.  However, this God has much more the characteristics of the society which growls and mows than that of Jehovah the giver of the Just Law.  This God’s ways are mysterious.  Even its creators don’t really know how it works.  How does the algorithm determine which YouTube video to play next?  Only your hairdresser knows for sure.

Emerson then segues into the sublime irrational.  “And now at last the highest truth on this subject remains unsaid; probably, cannot be said; for all that we say is the far-off remembering of the intuition.  That thought, by what I can now nearest approach to say it, is this.  When good is near you, when you have life in yourself,–it is not by any known or appointed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; –the way, the thought, the good shall be wholly strange and new.”


World Without Mind–Chartbeat

Poor Franklin Foer.  What did he think journalism was?  The pact between the journalist and the reader is a sycophantic one.  “What does the reader want?” is the guiding idea, and has been since the newspaper’s inception.  Not “what does he need?” Detorus that have happened at various junctiures were little more than window dressing, as I will articulate below.  If the reader wants his or her suppositions confirmed, for those oh-so-nebulous reasons locked deep in the unconscious, that Saddam Hussein is a global menace, it’s not going to matter that the objective evidence to the contrary is out there for the grasping.

This takes us to page 138 of Foer’s book, World Without Mind, and a little trot around the seamy mind of that other Facebook guy, Chris Hughes.  “Chris had learned the science of virality from a site called Upworthy…Upworthy didn’t produce much of anything original.  It plucked videos and graphics from around the Web, usually obscure stuff, then gave them headlines that made them appealing to the widest audience…psychologists had discovered that a state of unquenchable curiosity could be cultivated [italics mine–dw]…Upworthy designed headlines to make readers feel an almost primal hunger for information just outside their grasp.  It pioneered a style–with it called the ‘curiosity gap’–that explicitly teased readers, withholding just enough information to titillate the reader into going further.  Classic example: ‘9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-blowiing Fact.’  Six million readers couldn’t contain themselves and followed that link. (The mind-blowing fact: income inequality is far worse than most Americans think.)”  Of course saturation soon set in and Upworthy and their imitators had to find other ways of attracting eyeballs.  I  believe it is safe to say that they are managing to stay one step ahead of the hapless information consumer.  It wasn’t long before even the Washington Post and, yes, The New Republic were practicing their versions of this technique.  Foer calls this form of journalism “snackable content”–charts, lists, videos, quick stuff that appealed to the bored at work crowd.  The presentation had to be Fast and Fun.  Are you getting nauseated yet?  I didn’t think so.  “Clicks would rain down upon us if only we could get over ourselves and post the same short clips from The Daily Show as everyone else, framed by an appealing headline and perhaps a conscience-salving paragraph or two of analysis.”  That serious stuff that had a vogue from the 1940s to the 1970s? The kind wherein journalists would attempt to write the news without partisan bias?  When was that ever anything but a “conscience-salving paragraph or two” to put a veneer of respectability upon a sow’s belly?  The internet has just hastened the trajectory towards the tawdry.  You know you want it.  “That myth (that journalism was fundamentally a public-spirited enterprise) is in the process of being shredded.” is how Foer himself puts it.

Back to World Without Mind:  “One of the emblems of the new era hung over my life at the New Republic.  It dogged me across my day.  Every time I sat down to work, I surreptitiously peeked at it–and I did so as I woke up in the morning, then a few minutes later when I brushed my teeth, and again later in the day as I stood at the urinal…my master was called Chartbeat, a site that provides editors, writers, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of Web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article.  The site pretty clearly implied that journalism is a competition, a popularity contest.  The site’s needle made us feel as if our magazine were a car, showing us either sputtering up the hill of a poor traffic day or cruising to a satisfying number.”  Foer relates that Chartbeat has taken hold in virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog.  Not mine.  “Chartbeat has come to hover over the newsroom”, in Foer’s words.   They even have telescreens set up in all the offices in all the publications of note showing Chartbeat’s statistics.  But this is democracy, isn’t it?  It’s just that the pretense that there is something else involved in the liberal project, the quest for truth one might call it, is all gone now.  Our way of life is based in the popularity contest, and it’s merely being baldly acknowledged.  I ask the reader to think on the consequences of this phenomenon, and relate it to events of the past few years and decades.

A Few Words on Democracy

This little essay will reference an article by Thomas B. Edsall, who until 2017 was Adjunct Professor at Columbia University School of Journalism.  In the NYT edition of Oct. 19, 2017, his article “Democracy Can Sow the Seeds of Its Own Destruction” appeared.  You know, thoughts about the kind of things people only whisper about huddled together in the night under the sheets.  Very ominous words at the beginning of the essay: ‘On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine.  So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America [Edsall estimates later on in the essay that this figure is around 40 percent], to swallow what he feeds them.”  But Edsall sees Trump to be as much a symptom as a cause of our malaise:  “As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely…” a bit further on he quotes a certain Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who writes on immigration backlash:  “Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies… but they also contain the seeds of their own destruction:  if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate…societies will become less open…” and at this point he cites an upcoming conference–“Global Populisms:  A Threat to Democracy?”  But to my mind there are various conflations confounding the issue here.  How could populism be a threat to democracy if the numbers voting are sufficient to register majorities in legitimately mounted elections?  This is the essence of democracy.  It seems to me that a more accurate wording of idea for this conference would be “Global Populisms: A Threat to Liberalism?”  For populism in its predominant form is indeed a threat to classical liberalism.  Liberalism is unthinkable without democracy, this much has to be acknowledged.  But this state of affairs only points up the basic confusion permeating debates on the nature of both democracy and liberalism.  And Edsall then does move to try to address this tension.  He again makes use of quotation from the hallowed halls of the university political science professorship, this time from Adam Przeworski, who teaches at NYU.  He says there is nothing undemocratic about the elctoral victory of Donald Trump.  The problem liberals have a hard time reconciling themselves to is that Trump won “legitimately”.  The People Have Spoken.  And, as we all know, because Jean-Jacques Rousseau has told us, “Vox Populi Est Vox Dei.”  “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”  This is the dimly acknowledged fundament (the ultimate claim to legitimacy) of all extant democracies.  Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong.  The problem has been there all along, as James Madison understood as the Constitutional Convention was making its draft.  Federalist Papers No. 10, for all you constitutional scholars out there.  There is an innate propensity in the democratic system for the appearance of demagogues, Madison says.  Factions can appear, and the weight of numbers can encourage a lowest common denominator. (He also admits after a fashion that the basic reason for the US Constitution is the protection of the landed class and its property, and that controlling faction is the best way to insure that the landed gentry holds on to what it’s got.)  So, Communism on the one side, Fascism, in its guise as xenophobia, on the other.  Once certain “liberal” ideas fall by the wayside, democracy is free to proceed with its inevitable tendency to mobocracy.  And that is what is happening now in America, as Edsall acknowleges.  He quotes Anna Grzymala-Busse, political scientist at Stanford (Edsall seems to like quoting people with difficult-to-spell names):  “Norms of transparency, conflict of interest, civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of its citizens are all consistently undermined [in the current atmosphere], and without these the formal institutions become brittle.”  But how can one respect that which is contemptible?  We run up against the limits of tolerance.  All this points to one thing:  that both liberalism and democracy can no longer cope with current political trends.  It is far too weak to act as a bulwark against these kinds of forces now being unleashed.  Margaret Levi (Stanford again) thinks that there is no guarantee that right-wing populism “will not transform into the fascist and Nazi forms.”  It’s hard to disagree with her.

More quotation from tenured political scientists follows.  Don’t they stress in writing classes that one shouldn’t rely on such heavy use of quotation?  Just kidding, Thomas.  I understand and accept that one wants to be on relatively firm ground in making these inflammatory arguments.  The conclusions he points to are as unpopular as they are courageous.  You go, guy.

He does get into a bit of a contretemps with the (does it even still exist?) bohemian set by referencing the work of Paul Howe, yes, again a political scientist, at U of New Brunswick, Canada.  He writes about the “increasing size of the nihilistic segment of the American electorate”.  This “nihilistic” contingent is for all intents and purposes lumped in with the Trump faction as if there is no other contingent that might legitimately entertain such “nihilistic” beliefs as “a degree of contempt for social norms”.  Howe then argues, as Edsall interprets it, that “the broader constellation of transgressive and antisocial attitudes among a subsection of the public is an important force behind rising disregard for democratic norms.” One may want to refer back to my citing of Federalist no. 10 above at this juncture.  I will say at this point only that we are all transgressors.

By turns Edsall apparently wants us to shore up our belief in the democratic system and then undermines this confidence in subsequent examination.  This is what appears to be happening as he examines Ron Inglehart’s “The Danger of Deconsolidation:  How Much Should We Worry?”  Inglehart asks, what makes the US so distinctive?  (I guess he means as compared to other liberal democracies such as Germany or France.)  Then the familiar litany:  Democracy has become “appallingly dysfunctional”, involving governmental paralysis and massive increases of income equality.  It seems to me it would be understandable, from the position of those who are disincluded from the considerable riches of this earth, to have contempt for this state of affairs.  Who benefits in this growing disparity in material apportionment?  is the question that appears at this juncture.  (And then there’s Robert Michel’s work on oligarchy…in large-scale societies Michels pronounces oligarchy as inevitable in any democractic system.)

Edsall enters the home stretch with a bang:  Now it’s Daniel Bell he quotes, who wrote an essay 46 years ago called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”.  Edsall writes:  “American capitalism, Bell wrote, has lost its traditional legitimacy which was based on a moral system of reward, rooted in a Protestant sanctification of work.  It has substituted in its place a hedonism which promises a material ease and luxury, yet shies away from all the historic implications which a “voluptuary system”–and all its social permissiveness and libertinism–implies.  The conflict between ‘the principles of economics and economizing’ and a culture ‘rooted in a return to instinctual modes’ has produced a ‘disjunction which is the historic crisis of Western society.  This cultural contradiction, in the long run, is the deepest challenge to the society.'”  Bingo!

And now I think it’s time for another quote, from the socialist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who wrote in the thirties of the last century: “The crisis consists in just this–that the old has died and the new cannot yet be born.”

Edsall then returns to what he calls the idea of “the soft guardrails of democracy” to reemphasize the disintegrating norms bedeviling our society.  In Edsall’s estimation Daniel Ziblatt, professor of government at Harvard, is worth considering in his identifiying certain “master norms” which need to undergird democratic systems:  mutual toleration, that is, the acceptance of the basic legitimacy of our opponents, and institutional forbearance, the responsible exercise of power by those in office.  But if democracy, nationalism, liberalism itself are now being called into question, what is the fate of such ideas as the “master norms” which are undeniably direct products of this ideological contruct of political liberalism, in an era which so sorely challenges the feasibility of these norms?

One must face facts:  The liberal moment is over.  1787-2018.  A period amounting to three human lifetimes is enough for such a flawed system as this.  The era of the anarcho-psychological critique rushes in to fill the void, the last best hope of the civilized soul.

World Without Mind II

Foer then taskes a turn to the philosophical antecedents of computational science as promulgated by René Descartes.  “I am a thinking thing that can exist without a body,”  Descartes wrote.  Now “Protestant” thinkers such a Sam Harris translate that into such statements as “Intelligence is information processing.”  The thing that characterizes the age of Descartes, which hasn’t really ended, unfortunately, is this”scouring out” of the corporeal self, engendering a deepening split between the realms of thinking and feeling, with feeling relegated to some backwater that has no bearing on our evolutionary advance.  Then Foer jumps to Alan Turing, with his infamous “Turing Test” in which behavior counts for reality–if it looks like an intelligent entity, then it is an intelligent entity.  You are your behavioral artifacts.  “What it’s like” to be a thing–why should we pay any attention to that?  Thus the battle lines are drawn, and there is no compromise possible between them.  Naturwissenschaft vs. Geisteswissenschaft.  Can’t you feel how close we are to the ultimate showdown?  Foer:  “Engineering is considered the paragon of rationality–a profession devoted to systems and planning, the enemy of spontaneity and instinct.”  The enemy.  We must determine who is friend and who is enemy.  That is the science of politics, according to Carl Schmitt.  Very dangerous way of approaching the problem.  One looks so hard for common ground.  But what is the common ground between Naturwissenschaft and Giesteswissenschaft?  One could aver, one must integrate them.  All well and good.  But the scientific spirit is a totalizing one.  It will not be satisfied as long as any remnant of the subjective is left standing.  An interesting rebuttal of Turing is found in an article by John Searle, in his notorious Chinese Room Argument.


Suppose that artifical intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer which behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese symbols as input, consults a large look-up table (as all computers can be described as doing), and then produces other Chinese symbols as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it passes the Turing test. In other words, it convinces a human Chinese speaker that it is another human Chinese speaker. All the questions the human asks are responded to appropriately, such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese speaker. The conclusion proponents of strong AI would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does. Suppose further that an operator is sitting inside a closed room possessing the necessary materials to perform all pertinent character-manipulation operations. The operator receives Chinese symbols, looks them up in tables, and returns the correct Chinese symbols, solely by using the relevant materials. Knowledge of Chinese is completely irrelevant to the question of efficacy in providing the correct output. Is there any difference between this human operator’s processes and those of a computer? The many attempts at objection to this simple argument—Syntax cannot suffice for semantics—are themselves highly problematic.

Such confusions are inevitable in a world where engineers and computer scientists basically call the shots.

Foer then takes up the problem of the algorithm. The algorithm was developed to automate thinking [italics mine-dw], to remove difficult decisions from the hands of humans, to settle contentious debates.”  Erupting like magma made of ice from the volcanic mind of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the algorithm itself issued from Leibniz’s calculus.  In the development of his calculus, he imagined a sort of “alphabet of human thought.”  To create this “alphabet”, one takes as data the incontestably true facts about the world.  Each discrete entity in this category, which Leibniz called the “primitives”, would be assigned a numerical value.  These values would then form the basis of a new calculus of thought, the “calculus ratiocinator”.  The nonsense gathers quickly from this point.  Leibniz says, let us assign numerical values to these data.  One such datum is “animal”, another “rationality”.  Rational times animal equals Man.  And a further reduction:   “Animal” is give the value of  2.  “Rational” is given the value of 3.  2 x 3 = 6.  Then, Leibniz, genius of the nascent 18th century, asks a deep question:  Are all men monkeys?  Since the value for monkey is 10 (anyone can see that this is self-evident), which cannot be divided evenly by 6, there is no element of monkey in man.  Case closed.  So easy!  What an elegant proof that all knowledge can be derived from computation.  I guess engineers don’t really accept this sort of reasoning today.  But generally speaking the reduction of complex features of the world, and especially human emotional realities, to numerically-based computation proceeds apace.

Next, Foer digs into the current state of internet algorithm application.  I will continue next time with some of the little gems he discusses in this connection.

World Without Mind

Franklin Foer’s recent book.  Earlier in 2017, Foer had just had a bad experience working for the New Republic magazine, stemming from a difference of approach between he and the magazine’s owner, Chris Hughes.  More on that below.  This experience gave him a turn about the nature of the the new technological juggernaut being unleashed in this decade.

Foer begins his book by profiling Stuart Brand, child of an advertising executive who scuttled around the SF counterculture circuit in the run-up to the Summer of Love.  Brand comes across in Foer’s profile as The Man Who Betrayed the 60s.  “His [Brand’s] gift was to channel the spiritual longings of his generation, and then to explain how they could be fulfilled by technology.”   This was a version, as Foer puts it, of “humanity tied together into a single transcendent network.”  Brand, after a detour through the ranks of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and later profiled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, represented the “restrained, reflective wing of the Pranksters and according to Foer, “remained a neatnik with a filing cabinet.”  Of course at this juncture (1967) the sentiment among the cognoscenti of the counterculture was that computers and the counterculture’s core values could never mix.   Foer:  “Everything the nascent counterculture would come to despise–the mindless submission of the herd, the tyranny of bureaucracy, could be reduced to a pungent symbol, the computer.”  And yet, this despising was overdetermined, for it masked a deep fascination with its hated shadow who appeared at this very time in the persona of the Trekkie.  Foer: “Baby Boomers grew up in a world steeped in technology–rock ‘n’ roll, automobiles, television.  They enjoyed modernity far too much to mount a full throated counteroffensive.”  R.Crumb summed it up in his comic story of July 1970, “Mr. Natural Goes to a Meeting of the Minds”.   Foont:  “What should we do, Mr. Natural?”  Mr. Natural:  “If you really want to make a revolution, it’s a simple matter of getting rid of all this illusory booshwah junk that clutters the human spirit and encumbers the will in its battle for freedom–(picks up TV to throw it out the window) “I’m sure you don’t need THIS!”  “Somebody stop him!” “Some nerve!” “Hey! That reminds me! it’s almost time for the eleven o’clock news!!”

Brand was the one who got NASA to release the famous picture of the whole earth in space.  His Whole Earth Catalogue, a bold attempt to fuse the ideals of hippiedom with the instruments that could make alternative communities function, was “one of the Bibles of our generation”, according to Steve Jobs.  And so, Brand arrived at his fateful conclusion, one which was to have such wide repercussions down to the present day.  Granted, technology had created the lion’s share of the current ills of the world.  However, technology, but, crucially, a technology that was decoupled from its institutional moorings in General Dynamics and IBM, and returned to the hands of the people, was the only force potent enough to save it.  Foer at this juncture quotes a certain Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  The Whole Earth Catalogue “helped create the conditions under which microcomputer and computer networks could be imagined as tools of liberation.”

end part I